How time spent alone can foster creativity and independence among children.

Ever felt the need for a peaceful retreat if for no other reason than to collect your thoughts? Your kids might need to do the same. Some experts fear that in a world muddied with thousands of distractions, structured activities and constant entertainment options, our children do not spend enough time alone simply relaxing or engaging in quiet, unplugged play.

“The demise of children learning to amuse themselves has negative consequences…when they become adults,” says Ann Dunnewold, a psychologist and author of Even June Cleaver Would Forget the Juice Box. “As a society, we’re lacking on this kind of time.”

Children who are constantly entertained prove less likely to show initiative and more likely to have problems motivating themselves upon entering the work world. On the other hand, kids given regular time alone are more likely to exhibit time management and problem solving abilities. Time alone also fosters creativity, self-confidence and independence. Plus, solitude gives kids the opportunity to drive their own play without having to compromise or go along with what the group demands.

Follow your child’s cues. No doubt, extracurricular activities enhance a child’s physical and social development. However, when those activities dominate a child’s day, they don’t get ample opportunity to unwind. A child’s reaction to overstimulation varies depending on their personality, but typical signs that your kiddo might need some down time include crankiness, irritability and not getting along with others.

Teresa Bondora, an educator and mother of two children, believes in respecting our children’s changing needs for social and solitary time. She says you may be surprised at how much time alone they choose on their own.

“In my opinion, time alone or (time) spent recreationally is just as personal and timely as hunger. And dictating (their time) is disrespectful and teaches children to ignore their own body speaking to them. If we ask and respect this need, then we teach them to respect it for themselves and listen to it,” Bondora says.

Schedule daily quiet time. Carve out quiet time in the day, if your child isn’t used to initiating it on his own. Daily quiet time allows kids to relax, listen to music, read or simply daydream. However, your child’s needs may vary. While all children need down time, not every child must be alone to recharge.

“Some children who really like to be with others might like it best if they are lying on the couch reading a book while mom reads her book right next to them. Other children might really want to be off alone,” Dunnewold says.

Babies as young as two months old can play on their own for a little while.

“Have (your) baby play in five to 10 minute increments on a blanket on the floor. Babies of this age can amuse themselves by looking at pictures in board books or at mirrors or lights,” Dunnewold says. 

Alternate between playing with your baby for five minutes and giving her five minutes to play on her own. Slowly increase the amount of time.

With an older child, set a timer and encourage them to play alone for 10 minutes. When the time is up, play for 10 minutes with your child and then set the timer again for 10 minutes of solitary play. If your preschooler no longer naps, set aside an hour a day for your child to play quietly, look at books and relax.

Encourage self-directed play. Even if your youngster complains about how bored they are, avoid jumping in as the designated entertainer. Self-directed play leads to more imaginative play.

If your child isn’t used to playing alone, suggest activities that they can do on their own. List activities on a chart or have them pick an idea out of a jar. Afterward, reward them with a sticker or extra time with you and use positive reinforcement. For example:

“Didn’t you have fun?! What a big girl!”

Create an “imagination bucket” for your child’s quiet time and change out the contents from time to time to keep it interesting. Depending on the age of your child, include popsicle sticks, crayons, glue, beads, pipe cleaners or stickers. Let them go to town creating, coloring or designing. Building blocks are another excellent choice that encourage children to practice fine motor skills while using their imaginations.

Model time alone. Constantly playing the role of entertainer or running from one activity to the next is exhausting and stressful. Set an example for your children about how to best manage stress by modeling quiet time on your own, whether it’s through reading, journaling or simply resting.

Ester Buchholz, a psychologist and author of the book The Call of Solitude, says that time alone is needed more than ever in our lives.

“Being alone gives us the power to regulate and adjust our lives,” she writes. “It can teach us fortitude and the ability to satisfy our own needs. It brings forth our longing to explore, our curiosity about the unknown, our will to be an individual…. Alone time is fuel for life.”

Bondora says time alone helps her children tune in more to their feelings and better understand why they feel a certain way. They can also better vocalize their needs.

“They take care of themselves and judge when they need to be alone or when they need to have some loud fun!”

From enhanced introspection and creativity to valuable life skills, a restful respite in the middle of a busy day will support your child’s physical, mental and emotional health today and into the future. And, as a hardworking parent, you’ll reap the benefits, too!

Christa Melnyk Hines

Freelance journalist, Christa Melnyk Hines and her husband are the parents of two boys. She finds happiness in historical romance novels, sunny days and chocolate chip cookies. Christa is the author of Confidently Connected: A Mom’s Guide to a Satisfying Social Life.